What Does Musical Taste Indicate About Us?
Music taste reveals a lot about us — but don’t take it too far.
During a conversation addressing the question, “What is one of your most important musical experiences?” I was mocked for revealing my first real musical experience: The Beatle's appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. My fellow African American family member said I was “So white” because my experience is associated with a white British rock band. Of course, I know she was joking with me, but as Chaucer stated, “…many a true word hath been spoken in jest.”
This made me think of two questions; As an African American, am I obligated to have the same experiences as the rest of my race?, and does my taste in music reveal who I am? Even though she was joking (jesting), it made me think seriously about myself. I already knew that many things I like to do and enjoy are mostly activities other than activities that African American people continually participate in, at least not in large numbers. I love the outdoors and spend time hiking and taking photographs of nature. I do not feel that makes me white because if it did, my heart would not skip a beat when the bright colored lights of a cop car are behind me.
On February 7, 1964, I was six years old. I had already heard the Beatles music a couple of months earlier during a visit with a family in upstate New York. The only thing I remember about the trip is the music my cousin played while she and my mother marveled over the sound of the Beatles (She Loves You/I Want to Hold Your Hand). It isn’t easy to appreciate the big deal now, but back then, nobody had heard a sound so different. All history has to be put into perspective and contextualized to get a clear picture. When we returned to the Bronx, everyone was waiting to see this band on the number 1 show in the country, The Ed Sullivan Show.
My entire Bronx apartment building was tuned in that night, and many of us had what we would call today a watch party. Tenants were crammed into each other’s tiny apartments to watch the Beatles. We even had a couple of people who came to our house to experience it with someone instead of watching it alone. I only remember a little about the actual televised show. I do remember the excitement and ambiance surrounding this event; it lit up an entire neighborhood and the country. That event left a mark on me that is still engrained in my personal history. The other event was the assassination of President Kennedy a little over two months earlier. Many people, regardless of race, if they remember that time, this event would be a big event.
In my home, we had one record player, a little one at that. We mostly listened to the radio. My early childhood musical experience consisted of Motown music. I still remember being mesmerized by watching the Motown label, with the map of Detroit and Lake Erie spinning round and round. I had no idea at the time that I would live right in the middle of that mythical map in the future. The only performer I remember outside of the Motown stable was Sam Cook, who my mother loved. We did not have one James Brown record in my house. So, I never listened to James Brown at all in my first informative and impressionable early years. I only listened to what my parents played.
By the time I was 9 or 10 years old, I really started paying attention to James Brown. In December of 1968, I was eleven years old. My sister and I were sent to buy some Christmas music. We went down to the record store and purchased two .45 records. One record was the Little Drummer boy, but my sister and I decided the second record would be James Brown’s Say it Loud, I’m Black and Proud. Our grandfather was not pleased with that decision, but after a couple of drinks, he was ok with it. My sister and I danced to that song in our living room during the entire Christmas holidays.
As an aside, Ten years later, in 1978, I was in the tiny Airport in Augusta, Georgia, waiting on a midnight flight back home. There was only one other table occupied in the airport that night, and sitting at that table was the busiest man in show business, the one, and only James Brown! I did not get up to ask for his autograph. He was with a bunch of white men in suits (not always a great sign), and he seemed lost in his thoughts. He was there physically but not emotionally. Mr. Brown had checked out, sitting in the middle of those white folks. I don’t know what was going on in his life then, but it was better if I continued eating and waited for my flight without ever attempting to communicate.
But I digress. The gold I am trying to dig up in this piece is; Can I, or anyone, be judged on my music taste or experience? Directly at my fingertips, the answer was right there. I hit a gold vein of information. Amazon Music knows more about my taste than I could ever express in words alone. I stream music on Amazon all the time, and I have seven years with this service. Amazon must have enough data to figure out who I am. I am not talking about an algorithm. Sometimes those algorithms hit the spot, but only some of their suggestions are the type of music I really like. Instead, I went to the source and investigated my frequent plays list.
I was surprised while looking at my most frequently played music and artist. The top 20 frequent plays can be categorized into three main genres; Jazz, classical, and funk. This music does not fit easily into a genre. This is just a close association.
- Jazz — 12
- Classical — 4
- Funk/soul — 4
I can easily see some of my favorite artists within these genres, such as Robert Glasper, Pat Metheny, and War. But there were some of my frequent plays I never considered my favorite, but whose songs I frequently play, such as Robin Kodheli (avant-garde music), Terje Rypdal, and Judy Kang. Just as surprising or even more surprising is what music and artists that were not on my most frequently played top 20 music. Artists I love, such as Stevie Wonder and John Coltrane, who may be my all-time favorites, did not make the top 20!
There also were no rock songs, so none of the rock music I still listen to, including the Beatles, was on the list. Nor was there any rap in the top 20. Besides Motown, there was no other soul music on the list. What type of Black person am I based on this information? First, this is obviously not the list of a 20-year-old. Anyone can look at my music list and figure I have to beat at least 50 years old or a musician myself.
Many right-wing conservatives listen to and play blues music and other forms of Black music. That does not make them Black. It is accepted that this is simply the music they enjoy listening to. End of story. My musical taste and experience differ from most African Americans’ musical taste. But it is eclectic enough that it only fits a few swaths of the American population. Musical tastes are as diverse as the individuals who listen to them.
The music all of us listen to reveals some things about us. That is for sure. However, we make the mistake of attributing our musical taste to groups and cultures. Music is universal. Of course, culture and environment play a significant role in our preference of what we listen to. As we become older and free of peer and societal social pressures, what we listen to on our own in private is what we really enjoy, and it has nothing to do with race or other bullshit that is presented to us. I’m an old man now and am not interested, nor do I give a shit about what people feel about my musical taste. From this point on, I am only concerned with my comfort and enjoyment of life. Right now, I’m listening to Meshell Ndegeocello’s Bitter. I know I do not fit the demographics of her primary audience, but, gee, her music is excellent.